What is insight practice? Before answering that question, let’s back up a little and ask, “What is the Buddha’s teaching, or Dharma, essentially about?”
Dharma is about attaining freedom from suffering. All Buddhist practice has this aim.
There are of course many different kinds of Dharma practice. To use a classical model, there is 1) ethical practice, 2) meditative practice, and 3) wisdom practice. These all work in different ways to reduce our suffering.
Ethical practice makes us look at what we do and say, with an eye to whether, in the long term, we are causing ourselves and others suffering. So we train ourselves not to cause physical harm, not to deprive others of their property, not to sexually harm or exploit them, not to lie or speak unkindly to them, and not to suppress our ethical sensibility with drugs and alcohol. These are the five precepts of Buddhism.
Meditative practice helps us cultivate the mindfulness we need in order to observe how our patterns of thought can cause suffering—for ourselves, yes, but for others too as our thoughts are expressed in words and actions. It also helps us to develop qualities such as kindness and compassion, which help both to eradicate emotions such as anger and cruelty that cause harm, and to create positive states of wellbeing, fulfillment, and happiness.
For a long time, most of our practice might necessarily be focused on becoming more ethical in our daily lives and on cultivating skillful qualities such as mindfulness and kindness. In general this makes us happier. But there’s a limit to how far we can go in the direction of cultivating happiness through becoming more skillful. There are deeper factors at work than our relatively superficial (and yet still deep-rooted) emotional and behavioral habits. We can knock down weeds, but unless we uproot them they’ll keep growing back.
This is because the very way in which we interpret our experience is flawed, Buddhism tells us. Our perceptions are distorted. This doesn’t mean that we’re literally subject to, for example, optical delusions. It’s not that a person you’re looking at is really a cat or an alien, or that their hair looks brown but is really green. It’s that the way we interpret our experience is frequently mistaken.
For example, we assume that things (ourselves included) are more stable and reliable than they actually are. So we might assume unconsciously that our parents, or we ourselves, will live forever. We might assume that some painful feeling we have is going to be with us permanently. This creates suffering.
We assume that happiness comes from setting up a constant stream of pleasant experiences while keeping at bay unpleasant experiences. And yet since we can’t control the world, this is simply unattainable.
We assume that we are more separate from the world, and from other beings in the world, than we actually are. Thinking of ourselves as separate we may act as if a concern for our own wellbeing can be separated from our concern for the wellbeing of others: that we can be happy by simply focusing on ourselves.
Insight practice challenges the delusion of permanence, the delusion that happiness can be found through grasping after pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the delusion that we have a separate and concrete existence. It helps us to let go into freedom; to let go into reality.
You might read the words “insight practice” and think I’m talking about “insight meditation.” But practice is more than just meditation. We can cultivate insight and challenge our misperceptions in our daily activities as well as on the cushion. And so we can do so outside of meditation as well. Additionally, we should pausing from time to tome to focus on non-insight meditations, in order to remind ourselves that the goal of Buddhism is not simply one of attaining insight, but of developing kindness, compassion, and moral excellence.
We’re going to take one of those pauses right now. So to get started with meditation, let’s begin with a simple mindfulness of breathing—something to help us calm, focus, and steady the mind so that we can see beyond our delusions.